During Amsterdam Art Week Galerie Fons Welters present a body of work from 2014 by Jennifer Tee. The exhibition comprises work that accumulated in 2014 from research into the origins of abstract art and the endeavor to unite abstraction with mythical concepts. This research was extended into the secret language of diagrams in the Tao. The geometrical arrangement of objects conveys an interest in the notion of sculpture exploring the possible fluidity of a structure paired with the possibility of concealing matter inside it, and the quality of shifting function – becoming a stage for a choreography of future actions.

Jennifer Tee in conversation with Francesca Gavin

FG: One of the most interesting parts of your work is the spiritual element. You have referenced as influences some historical artists such as Kandinsky - someone no one talks about anymore who wrote on spirituality and art - and Hilma af Klint. I'm curious why you're driven to incorporate the spiritual as part of the content and methodology of what you do.

JT: I think from the beginning of my practice, I was very interested in how life and art intersect. How everyday life could be incorporated into the work. Then this desire to also incorporate the interior, the psychological interior arose. I started wondering what is the self and how does the self relate to the body and the spirit? I was also fascinated by artists previously called outsider artists. Often their biggest motivation for making art was they felt some sort of calling, through visions, for instance. Questions such as how the universe perhaps influences the perception of the self or multiple selves and what drives artists to make art, interested me. 

FG: When you were talking about the works on paper, part of the Occult Geometry series, you described them as diagrams or diagrammatic. Diagrams for what? Somewhere between ritual or choreography? It's a really interesting choice of word.

JT: I think that word came from a book, an ongoing inspiration. Tao Magic: the secret language diagrams and calligraphy by Laszlo Legeza. Can I read a little bit? “Taoist graphic art is first and foremost a practical magic. It's designed to protect, to heal, to bring success in everyday undertakings, and to ensure long life, health and happiness. Such magic diagrams and scripts have been made and used in China, from earliest times up to the present day by a wide range of artists, including illiterate villagers, reclusive hermit scholars, as well as priests, sorcerers and faith healers. On a deeper psychological level, the graphics expressed a Taoist vision of a universe of ceaseless change and Oh, persuasive, vital energy. They are to help to harmonize the ying and the yang, the sexual polarities within ourselves and allow us to place ourselves in harmony with the turbulent energies that act continually both on our lives and on the universe.” 

FG: The images in the book are of fluid, graphic abstract forms.

JT: The idea that the drawings were used within a community of people inspired me. They were actively meditated on and could even be performed, for instance, to ask for rain. My work carries this possibility as well. The book also contains a diagram with the female sex organs. The kidneys were actually seen as sexual bodily elements. The title of one the works in the exhibition, Talisman to Vitalize the Kidneys / the Female Sex Organs, refers to this custom. What I tried to do in the series Occult Geometry was combine all these elements. I think abstraction is often seen as circles, squares or triangles, but both af Klint and Kandinsky often employed very diverse types of languages in their works. They used lines, spirals, swirls with individual meanings. Kandinsky wrote an entire book about these forms of painting, called Point and Line to Plane. It also has a lot to do with the dematerialization of art and of the figurative. Both artists refer to all things that surround us that one cannot see, such as sound waves and X-rays. This was also the period when people were moving away from Christianity and were looking for other kinds of belief systems. There was a lot of scientific development; as today with AI and the internet.

FG: Do you think that in your own work, you're mixing that diasporic experience and the ideas that those artists were drawing on?

JT: Possibly. I've been very interested, because of my cultural heritage, I guess, in Asian art forms where the depiction of humans and figurative art was already less central. There was more emphasis on the landscape, on nature, the form of a rock, the forms of plants and trees. This has been influential in the series Occult Geometry. In a way the series is a fictional meeting between these worlds. I’m also fascinated by how the female and the male relate to color. In her work, Hilma af Klint used certain colors which she described as male and female. Kandinsky also wrote about the use of color.

FG: Do you imbue color with particular meaning in the Occult Geometry series or your wider practice, or is it much more intuitive? 

JT: I think from the beginning, I was really interested in using vivid colors. There was a tendency at the time to uses gray tones and soft, brownish hues, Joseph Beuys colors. This use of vivid colors has always been an important element in my work, but it takes on different forms. For instance, the collages that I make with tulip petals have the palette of colors that come directly from the flowers. However, the colors are also based on the use of color in traditional Indonesian weavings, Tampan, to which the collages refer.

FG: Have you ever read David Batchelor’s Chromaphobia? He talks about how artists have been afraid of color and how it is gendered, homophobic and racist. I’m also interested in this tension between stability and collapse in your work.

JT: I think it was quite well described here in the back of the Tao Magic book, these turbulent energies that continually go on in our lives and the universe, I think that's where this collapse comes from. Because as humans, it's very difficult to find any balance in surroundings that are constantly changing, either politically, or in the universe, climatic. You constantly have to find your balance. I think often, in prayer or desires, you hope for things that in the end are quite contradictory. For instance, you want to travel and see the world, be free and live a careless life, but you also want a nice home and to be comfortable. In Western society, one thinks much more in opposites. In Eastern philosophy, the opposites are the whole. 

Jennifer Tee (1973, the Netherlands) lives and works in the Netherlands. Recent solo exhibitions include Melly, Rotterdam, NL (2023); Secession, Vienna, AT (2022); performance at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, NL (2020); Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, DE; Camden Art Centre, London, AT; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, NL (all 2017). Tee's work is currently part of 'Indigo Waves and Other Stories', Gropius Bau, Berlin, DE; 'Flowers Forever', Kunsthalle München, DE; 'River of Rebirth', Z33, Hasselt, BE and has been exhibited in 'We, on the Rising Wave', Busan Biennale 2022, Busan, KR (2022); 'A Lasting Truth Is Change', Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, NL (2022); ‘Force Times Distance – On Labour and it’s Sonic Ecologies – Sonsbeek 20-24’, Sonsbeek, Arnhem, NL (2021); 'The Seventh Continent' 16th Istanbul Biennial, TR (2019); 'Affective Affinities, Biennale de Sao Paulo', Sao Paulo, BR (2018). Her work is part of the collections of among others FRAC Alsace, Sélestat, FR; FRAC Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Marseille, FR; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, NL; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, NL.